After 2.5 months outside the United States, I’m on a short trip to visit family, and have spent the first 3 days in Madison, with my sister Karen.
The first thing to greet my ears on crossing over from Francophone Montreal to Anglophone Wisconsin was how loud everything seemed, especially people. I can suddenly understand all the overheard conversations, so the volume seems all that much greater and the content all that much poorer. As a counterbalance, people in Madison are, by and large, unbelievably friendly to strangers. They not only say hello, but ask a slew of questions, eagerly listen to the answers, and offer cheerful advice, even if unasked for, about how to enjoy their town, which they obviously love. Such exchanges exude a generous amount of humanity, and there’s hope in that, at least, in an age when people seem to be forgetting they are capable of being sociable and neighborly with other humans face-to-face.
More than what hit my ears, though, was what has caught my eye — repeatedly — with the freshness of vision on returning “home” to the States.
Everywhere, kids with minion backpacks, T-shirts, toys, and other paraphernalia, and sometimes adults with minion-adorned items, too. I’m way out of the popular culture loop, but I’m guessing that the minion, with its yellow pill-shaped body dressed in blue overalls and big glasses, is a high-grossing character in a summer-fun family film and its offshoot merchandise. Yet all I see are the many real-life bodies gravitating happily toward making themselves into a minion, toward being a minion by sporting one of these creatures, “a servile dependent, follower, or underling of a powerful person”; “a subordinate”; “a yes-man”; “a nameless, faceless servant.”
If movies are perfectly timed to reflect the times, well… seeing minions on all sides of me, from the minute I got off the plane and entered US “airspace” alongside a kid carting their minion suitcase, seems ample evidence. Perhaps, and indeed likely, the minions win out at the end of their high-budget film, with sequels to come. But here on US soil, they are an increasing army of disposable, dehumanized bodies, made passive in so many ways — ways they too often embrace with an infantile, overly smiley glee as “pill” against feeling the misery of their lives, and thus fighting back.
Besides minions, cops.
My sister assures me that she usually doesn’t see so many cop cars with lights flashing and so many cops arresting people in Madison. I want to believe her. Maybe I’m seeing more because police are more common in the United States than in Montreal on a daily basis, so I’m just extra noticing them on this short visit. I kind of think that there are a lot of cops with a lot of pricey toys, and they need to keep busy, which in Madison like elsewhere means mostly stopping, encircling, and targeting black people. Someone told me that Madison has the worst record of any school system in the country in terms of the education it provides to black children, despite Madison’s progressive air. I got the feeling that the white cops harassing black people were the ones who’d received an even worse upbringing, however. No one seems to teach police right from wrong, and even if they did, the entire institution is the most structurally rotten form of training.
So besides minions and cop, Tony Robinson.
Tony, a 19-year-old black (“biracial”) man, was murdered on March 6, 2015, by Matt Kenny, a 45-year-old white Wisconsin police officer. More proof, for one, that not everyone grows wiser as they grow older. Tony was assassinated within seconds just over 4 months ago, on a street in my sister’s neighborhood that we go to frequently. He was killed a couple blocks from the food co-op, a collective bread bakery, a countercultural cafe, and a peace and justice center. His death still feels so fresh, so much the raw wound. Handmade signs adorn a few windows in nearby houses and stores. Yet at the house where he was murdered, nothing. Apparently the landlord wanted the Madison police to clean up quickly so he could re-rent ASAP. Tony’s friends, who he was visiting when shoot, never returned back to their apartment after that night. Instead, new tenants, including — next door — a new Mexican restaurant. When asked about how he felt working right next door to the cop-crime scene, a waiter looks slightly startled: “I didn’t know…until you told me.” The only evidence of execution is the artwork shown in the photograph here. No makeshift shrine, no photos of Tony and letters to him, no mention of his name on this murder site. A hetero white couple walks by the house, stops, and I think they’re about to take solemn notice, but they simply are stopping to playfully flirt and then move on, laughing.
Minions, cops, Tony. Also, fireflies.
At dusk and beyond, the fireflies start cavorting. Their lights blink and twinkle, dart and dance. They play hide and seek between summer flowers. They are second layer of dramatic carpet above green grass or the lake waters here in Madison. They’re mirror to their cousins, the stars above them. Fireflies always seem otherworldly to me: magical, the stuff of fairy tales and oral traditions and community, the stuff of mysteriously beautiful promise. I’ve never failed to take pure pleasure in fireflies, abandoning myself to their moment, their tiny bright sphere.
This summer, their illumination seemed to me a beacon, warning of what we stand to lose by allowing capitalism and colonialism, white supremacy and a lack of critical thinking and acting for ourselves, for each other, to destroy this, our only ecosystem — both nonhuman and human.
If our folly should make us soon extinct as a shortsighted species, I hope the fireflies live on, live long, as far more enlightened spirits than us.
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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, artwork for Tony Robinson, Madison, July 19, 2015.)